Houston reflects America’s changing face

RICE (US)—To see what America’s urban centers will look like in 20 years, travel to Houston. The city’s shifting demographics and evolving economy represent a national trend, according to work by Stephen Klineberg, Rice University sociologist and director of the annual Houston Area Survey.

Klineberg, who has led the study since its inception 28 years ago, says that along with the major immigration capitals of Los Angeles and New York City, and closely following upon Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago, Houston is at the forefront of the new diversity that is refashioning the social and political landscape of urban America.

Issues of public discussion such as gay rights and political affiliation could see dramatic shifts as the social and demographic trends occurring in Houston spread to other U.S. cities.

“Throughout all of its history, Houston was essentially a biracial southern city dominated and controlled, in an automatic, taken-for-granted way, by white men,” Klineberg says. “Today it is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse metropolitan areas in the country.”

In Houston, and elsewhere, the white population is growing older, while most of the younger adults are black and Hispanic. If the trend continues, Houston (and America) likely will become more Hispanic and less Anglo as the 21st century unfolds.

Houstonians’ views on the new immigration and on the region’s burgeoning diversity have been affected by the economic anxieties, sometimes in curious ways, Klineberg says. The number of area residents who believe that the new immigration “mostly strengthens” (rather than “threatens”) American culture increased to 49 percent this year from 44 percent in 2007. The new number is still lower than the 57 percent in 2005, but higher than the 39 percent in 1997. The percentage of Harris County residents who favor “granting illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record” rose from 56 percent in 2008 to 61 percent this year, but it too is lower than the 68 percent in 2007.

Klineberg characterizes the attitudes toward immigration as “complex” and “volatile,” but says he has detected among respondents “less of a sense today than in recent years that we are being overwhelmed by immigrants coming here and threatening our culture.” Still, only 64 percent in the 2009 survey agreed that “the children of illegal immigrants should have the right to attend the public schools,” down from 71 percent in 2007.

The ongoing demographic transformations have also been a factor in local politics over the past 20 years. In 1989, 50 percent of Houstonians considered themselves Republicans, while 39 percent reported being Democrats. This year, 45 percent identify themselves as Democrats and 39 percent say they are Republicans.
The 2009 survey was conducted between Feb. 3 and Feb. 25 and reached a scientifically representative sample of 706 Harris County (Houston) residents.

Additional survey findings are available online.

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